A small group of engineers stood tensely beside the runway on Thursday at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Bangalore, peering at the sky. As two approaching dots rapidly enlarged into the menacing delta-wing shapes of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, an animated murmur arose. Test pilot, Wing Commander Suneet Krishna was bringing in a brand new Tejas fighter from its inaugural test flight.
Krishna descended steeply, a parachute flowering as his aircraft touched down; a split second behind him, the chase aircraft, another Tejas flown by Group Captain R R Tyagi, “peeled off” into the sky with a roar. That was the “chase aircraft”, which had watched and photographed every moment of Krishna’s flight. In those 40 minutes, both fighters had climbed to 36,000 feet; broken the sound barrier; turned and twisted sharply; and checked several parameters as part of the Tejas flight test programme.
The fighters taxied into where the ground crew was assembled and clapping broke out, as Krishna climbed out flashing a thumbs-up. A bucket of water was ceremonially dumped over his head (the Tejas budget does not run to champagne), several bouquets handed over, and kaju barfi stuffed into his mouth. The fourth Limited Series Production Tejas (LSP-4) was ready to join the flight test programme.
Each LSP Tejas contains more systems and is more complex than its predecessors. LSP-3, which first flew on 23rd April, was the first Tejas with a multi-mode radar (MMR); and with electronic systems to differentiate friendly from hostile aircraft. LSP-4 has all that and also flare and chaff dispensers to confuse enemy radars and missiles: a Counter Measure Dispensing System.
With the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) of the Tejas due this year, the flight test programme desperately needs every aircraft it can build. The testing, which requires thousands of individual flight checks, proceeds only as fast as the number of aircraft available for the testing. The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which oversees the Tejas programme, has faced sharp criticism from the Indian Air Force for producing successive LSP aircraft too slowly, thereby protracting the testing and delaying the IOC. LSP-4 will be only the eighth Tejas in the flight test programme, which has done 1,300 sorties, amounting to more than 700 hours of flying.
HAL admits that LSP-3 was overdue by a year, but points out that LSP-4 has followed in just over a month. “I am pushing for LSP-5 to fly by June-end,” says D Balasunder, the managing director of HAL’s Bangalore Complex. “It will have all the systems fitted in LSP-4, and will additionally have night lighting within the cockpit, and an auto-pilot.”
From the runway, technicians move off to the hangars with the newly-inaugurated LSP-4 to ready it for a gruelling regime of hot weather trials. This weekend, LSP-3 and LSP-4 will leave for Nagpur, where, day after day, they will bake in the sun for hours before hurling themselves into the sky to test whether their sophisticated electronics can withstand the Indian summer.
The ADA plans to build LSP-6 and LSP-7 quickly and then hand those two Tejas fighters to the IAF. At its base in Sulur, near Coimbatore, the IAF will operate the aircraft to provide feedback about improvements that are needed to make the Tejas easier to maintain in combat. ADA sources plan to make easy maintainability a key feature of the Tejas Mark- II, the next, improved, version of the Indian fighter.
“The Tejas Mark I is already as good or better as the light fighters in the IAF,” declares ADA chief, PS Subramaniam, referring to the MiG-21 BISON. “The air force should order at least 60 of them.”
But, the IAF is less exuberant. Senior air marshals point out to Business Standard that, if they grant the Tejas IOC at the end of 2010, it will be in the long-term interest of the fighter programme, not because the Tejas has met all its targets. The Tejas does not fly as fast as originally planned; its acceleration is significantly less; and the Tejas has not been tested yet in carrying much of the weaponry it is designed to.